Podcast 164: 3 Herbs for Toothache Relief

Ryn’s got a toothache this week, so this seems like a great time to teach about herbs for toothaches! When your tooth hurts, you want to relieve the pain, and you want to make sure you prevent or manage any infection. Fortunately, herbs are great at both of these jobs!

Spilanthes & kava are great for relieving pain. Spilanthes also increases localized immune activity. Berberine-bearing herbs like goldenseal and barberry are fantastic at fighting pathogenic microbes, and kava’s no slouch there either. A rotation of these plants serves well to address both the pain and the possibility of infection.

These would all be good friends to have on hand – we like them as tinctures for this job. That way, you’ve got some herbs for toothaches in the home first aid kit, in case one strikes.

Herbs discussed include: spilanthes, prickly ash, echinacea, goldthread, goldenseal, barberry, kava, meadowsweet, willow, sage, clove, star anise, myrrh, propolis.

Digestive Health

Dental health issues like toothache are covered in our Digestive Health course – along with a whole array of other common digestive troubles. Learning to care for digestion is a critical skill for herbalists, and a place herbs can do so much good. Course access never expires, you progress at your own pace, and you get access to our twice-a-week live Q&A sessions, so you can connect with Ryn & Katja directly. Check it out today!

As always, please subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen, so others can find it more easily. Thank you!!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Ryn (00:02):
Hi, I’m Ryn. And I’m here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts, and on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. This week I’m going to be flying solo. And I’m going to be talking to you about herbs for toothache, because I have a toothache. And it’s no fun. And t’s just spurring me to tell you all about how we cope with that around here, and ways that you might do that yourself. So first I just want to give you a little reminder that I’m not a doctor. I’m an herbalist and a holistic health educator. The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. And these discussions are for educational purposes only. We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So we’re not trying to present a dogmatic right way that you should adhere to. Everyone’s body is different. So the things we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but they will give you some information to think about and ideas to research further. Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. But it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether that’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make.

Ryn (01:34):
Okay. So, yeah, I’ve got a toothache. And I have had for a few days now. It’s been kind of a whole series of things that have been going on in my sinuses and surrounding area. And I think they are possibly all related. So, I’ve been kind of tracking them down one at a time. Last week I was working with ground ivy a lot to relieve some sinus and lymphatic congestion in the ear, nose, throat situation. And yeah, this week I’ve got this toothache acting up. I think it’s a filling that has partially fallen apart and might need to get replaced. So don’t worry. I am going to go and see a dentist and have them look around, and see if some reconstruction needs to get done in there. No problem. But in the meantime, of course, you can’t always get an appointment right away. I’m fortunate, because I’m going to be able to get one pretty soon. But in the meantime I definitely have been looking for some pain killing support, especially last night when it was kind of at a peak.

Spilanthes’ Helpful Tingle

Ryn (02:36):
So, what I started with was spilanthes. So that’s botanical name is Acmella oleracea. This is a plant that’s also sometimes known as toothache plant. So you can imagine that it’s well-known for this benefit and for this effect. Spilanthes has a tingly flavor to it. Or when you taste spilanthes, it’s like your whole tongue and your gums start to tingle. That has what we call a sialagogue effect as well, which is just a fancy way of saying that it stimulates salivation. But that tingle is actually really helpful. It helps us to know that there’s some act activity occurring in the nerve tissue itself. That tingling is not just a matter of you know, like pressure or a sensation that’s happening on the surface of the gums. That tingling is you really feeling the shape of the nerves in your face. So I find that to be really kind of fascinating. Spilanthes, the way that I’ve been taking it, is as a tincture. And actually all of the herbs that I’m going to discuss today, I’ve been taking them as tinctures for this toothache, mainly because you can put it right where you want it. You know, we often say, when we’re talking about herbalism and medicine making, that a real key factor is to get the herbs to the tissue. So by that we mean that if I have a scratch or something on my arm, I’m not going to only take my herbs by mouth to try to help that heal. I’m going to put them right onto the scratch. So with that kind of thing it’s pretty clear and obvious. But we do find a lot of times, especially with pain relief, that people have the primary idea in mind in advance of like swallow something and get that pain relief in my low back pain or my twisted ankle or my toothache or whatever it is. But in all of those cases, we would prefer to get the herb right to where it’s needed most. So topical preparations are where it’s at.

Ryn (04:39):
And tincture we usually think of as an internal thing, but in this case, it’s going to be topical in a way, right? Topical to the gums, to the tooth, to the nerves that underlie those tissues. And the way we accomplish that is real simple. We’re going to just take a dropper top. Squeeze it full of our tincture. And then point it as close as we can to the area that hurts the most. And squeeze and get a little stream of tincture right over there. My toothache is on the upper right side. So, I’ve also been kind of bending my head over in a sort of odd posture for about 30 seconds after I squirt it in there, so that I can really kind of move the tincture right to the area where it hurts the most right around those couple of teeth, the spot between them, and the gum tissue there. You can also do that without contorting yourself. But just kind of like you would move any other, you know, small amount of fluid around in your mouth and get it right to where you want it. You can do that with your tinctures. So, that’s the best way to take them. If I was to just squirt the spilanthes tincture on my mouth, like on my tongue I mean, or if I was to like squirt it into a cup of water and drink it down, it wouldn’t be as effective. Because it wouldn’t be as concentrated right at the site that needs it.

Ryn (05:59):
There is a bit of alcohol in this tincture. And so that does cause a little irritation to the gums, a little burning. That would be more severe if you have a higher proof tincture. All the herbs I’m going to be discussing here today were made in 40 or 50% alcohol, which I find fairly tolerable on the gums. Some people are a little more sensitive to this than others. And some herbs we might make in a much stronger or much higher alcohol content. And so with those it’s going to be a little more of a concern. And maybe you do dilute it a little bit with some water. Take a small sip of water into the mouth, and then squirt the tincture into there. And then move that mixed liquid over where you need it most. But again, with the tincture I had with spilanthes, that was not required. I was able to kind of just hold it there, again for about 30 seconds trying to keep it in contact. And then, you know, swallowing normally. And you feel it continue to go to work or to continue to exert an effect in the gum and in the nerve tissue there for a fair while afterward. I’ve been putting a squirt of spilanthes tincture in there every few hours at this point. Last night it was about once an hour. And I would feel pain relief for probably like 30, 45 minutes or so of that time. And then have a little bit of pain starting to emerge from there, starting to rise a bit. And then I’d be like okay. Time to get another squirt, and go ahead and put that right in there. And that’s how that’s been going. Today, every couple hours or every three hours has been sufficient for me.

Other Tingly Options: Prickly Ash & Echinacea

Ryn (07:42):
Some other herbs that I wanted to mention though, in case you don’t have access to spilanthes or aren’t able to get your hands on a prepared tincture of the herb, prickly ash and echinacea actually have similar compounds. These are called alkamides or sometimes isobutyl amides. But they are the thing that give the tingle. So prickly ash gets its name partly, well okay, from the thorns that are all over it. Yeah. That’s pretty prickly. But even if it didn’t have those, it might’ve still gotten that name. Because again, you squirt the tincture in your mouth, or if you were to make a decoction or something and swish that around in the mouth, you do feel that tingling and that activation. And again, you can get that from a well-prepared echinacea tincture as well. That’s something that I actually look for if I’m, you know, sampling an echinacea tincture product or something like that. I want it to cause that tingling. I want it to give that effect. And that’s an indicator of part of the chemistry that I’m interested in from this plant. So any one of those plants. Echinacea, you know, probably the commonest. The one that you’re most likely able to find at an herb shop or something like this. But prickly ash, spilanthes, all of these ones have a similarity in that effect. So, their action is on the nerve. And again, it is like initially that tingling kind of feeling. But then there’s a pain relief that follows. And like I said, that’s been persisting for me for a pretty decent amount of time.

Ryn (09:15):
The other aspect about spilanthes or prickly ash or echinacea that’s relevant here is that they do have some direct antimicrobial qualities of their own, like most plants do honestly. But perhaps more of interest to us is that they stimulate immunity, particularly in the places where you direct them. So this is well-known about echinacea, probably one of the most well-known herbs as an immune stimulant. And so lots of folks are kind of familiar with that idea. But the prickly ash and the spilanthes do partake of that quality. They are immune stimulants in their own right. And so here where we might have some damage, and there might be some exposed tissue or something, we are going to be thinking about infection. And the next set of herbs I’m going to discuss are really about directly addressing any pathogens that might be present. But it’s always nice to combine that direct attack with something that is going to wake up immunity, or is going to improve the function of immune responders in the local area. And so, you know, the echinacea or prickly ash, or in my case, spilanthes, are going to be contributing with that effect too.

Anti-Infective Goldthread, Goldenseal, & Barberry

Ryn (10:25):
Okay. So I’ve been alternating that. And like every other dose or between doses of the spilanthes, I’ve been taking a rotation of berberine herbs. So for me that’s been starting with Coptis or goldthread, Coptis trifolia. Also working with golden seal, because we happen to have some tincture around, and also with a barberry tincture. So, all of these were primarily of the root of the plant, although the barberry is actually a mixture of the root and the leaves. So these ones are not in here to reduce the pain of the toothache. They’re here to combat any infection that might be associated with that pain. When you get a toothache it could be a lot of different things. It could be that a nerve is exposed. It could be that, like in my case, like a filling has degraded or broken out and there’s some nerve tissue or some pulp of the tooth or underlying structure that’s now exposed and shouldn’t be. So it’s, you know, resulting in pain. You can get toothaches for problems that don’t involve, you know, an actual damage to the tooth itself. Maybe there’s inflammation in the gums, and that’s causing some swelling, pressing on the nerve, registering as pain. And it could be an infectious issue, of course, too. So, in really any of these cases it’s a good idea to have some antimicrobial herbs on rotation here to again, combat any infection that could be part of the problem, or to prevent any infection. So, I I’m feeling like my issue is a filling. Because last time I went in for a cleanup, they were like, ah. Part of that seems to be not really where it used to be. And maybe that’s going to become a problem down the line. But we had agreed to kind of watch and wait. I’m really actually grateful to this particular dentist, because that tends to be their first inclination, rather than let’s do the expensive thing right away.

Ryn (12:30):
So, you know, I appreciate that. But in this case maybe it wasn’t the best idea. In any case, like I said, I’m going to go and get that fixed up soon. But in the meantime while I suspect that there’s some exposed tissue there, I want to get occasional dosing of some antimicrobial herbs. And these herbs, what they share in common is this compound berberine, which is a powerful antimicrobial as long as you get it where it needs to go, right? So here I’m squirting it directly into the injured area or the exposed area. And it’s going to do a great job at clearing up any microbial pathogens that might happen to be in there, bacteria, potentially fungal issues, whatever else. The reason that I have a rotation going is that with these berberine herbs, I find that to be most successful when we’re combating any kind of infectious issue that they can help with. So, if that’s a wound on the skin, if it’s a bite that got infected, if it’s actually an intestinal infection or a stomach infection, these herbs can be helpful there as well. And I always find that a rotation is best. So they all have berberine in common, but there are a number of other individual compounds that may occur in one or another species, right? So like golden seal, for instance, famously contains a related alkaloid called hydrastine, which is also quite powerful as an anti-microbial. It’s also one of the major drivers of the astringency you get from golden seal. Where it really will kind of dry up your sinuses, your mouth mucosa. A lot of that is coming from the presence of hydrastine. And so, you know, each of the other berberine herbs, like Oregon grape root or out of the agarita, or again the goldthread and the barberry that I’ve been working with. They all have a varying compliments of these related substances. And that makes them more effective. If you present any pathogen with the same attack every time, then it doesn’t tend to be as successful as if you’re varying things up. So, here we have kind of a central, you know, core approach that is consistent across the set. But there is this variability, because each one is slightly different, slightly differently composed.

Nerve Numbing Kava

Ryn (14:56):
Okay. The third primary herb that I’ve been working with on rotation over the last day and a half here has been kava. And kava here is really kind of synthesizing both of these effects. Kava does have an antimicrobial quality to it. It does have a nerve numbing quality to it. And so it’s really kind of doing both of those sets of jobs. Kava does have a feeling of tingle that’s initially present, but then there’s a pronounced numbing sensation that comes from this plant. And so, of course that’s helpful if you’ve got pain, right? You take this tincture. You squirt it right up into that corner of the mouth, right up against that tooth, and you feel the pain relief pretty rapidly. So I like to have kava on the rotation there for that reason. But it also, you know, the herb does have a pretty good antimicrobial quality to it as well. You know, it’s a root. It grows in hot, damp climates in the world. So it needs to have some capacity to defend itself against, you know, bacteria, fungi, other kinds of pathogens just who attack that plant. We can work with this herb in our own bodies, and we can get some of that same effect, some of that same kind of protection. So that’s kava, pretty straightforward. Works well. Relieves pain. Helps fight infection. And something I had around. So that’s one I’ve been working with too. Right. So those are the three that I’ve been working with. Spilanthes, a berberines rotation, and kava. These were all herbs that I happen to have on hand in tincture format, and were also maybe some of the first ones that I noticed when I was realizing that this was a problem that I needed to do something about, and looking around for candidates in the apothecary at home here.

Salicylate-Containing Meadowsweet, Wintergreen, & Others

Ryn (16:55):
There are some other herbs that I could have worked with, and I might go ahead and work with over the next day or two as I am waiting for my appointment and all that. So, the first ones that I could think of would be the herbs that contain salicylates in them. So, I would be drawn first to meadowsweet there. I find that for rapid absorption and for dental issues, I tend to prefer meadowsweet over the other plants that contain salicylate content. One idea I have about that is that in meadowsweet the salicylates are occurring as methyl salicylate. And so that’s a lighter chemical, it’s the smaller molecule, and it seems like it’s going to be more easily absorbed through mucus membranes, and go to work on the tissue there or through skin for that matter. So for that reason, I do tend to prefer to work with meadowsweet. Or wintergreen would be another option that has a similar compound in it with rapid absorption. And so those are two that I’m definitely going to see if I’ve got a tincture bottle around that I can work with. Other salicylate herbs could include willow, alder, cottonwood you know, a variety of other plants contain these compounds. And I’m realizing I’ve launched right into discussion of like variants in salicylate content, but salicylates itself.

Ryn (18:22):
Okay. What are those, Ryn? So, these are some both anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving compounds that are found in a pretty broad array of different herbs, but our most famous in again, these plants I’ve named, like willow, cottonwood, alder, meadowsweet, wintergreen. There are others as well. Birch for instance, is another fantastic one. And so they all contain some form of what we call salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is sort of familiar to lots of folks in the form of aspirin, where that’s a synthesized version. And it’s actually in the form of what’s called acetylsalicylic acid. So that behaves a little bit differently from the salicylates that occur in plants. One important thing is that aspirin can damage your stomach lining or the linings of your GI tract. But the salicylates that occur in meadowsweet, willow, wintergreen, alder, birch and friends, they don’t have that risk. They can’t cause that kind of damage. So that’s nice. I like to know that. And again, you know, any of these herbs is worth experimenting with for pain relief. And again, as tincture. Squirt it right onto the area. It’s going to be the most effective way. But my preference is going to be towards meadowsweet and wintergreen. So, those would be the highlights for me there.

The Antimicrobial Aromatics & Resins

Ryn (19:47):
Okay. other herbs that I could have worked with, and I may go ahead to, include sage and other aromatic friends of that family. So, you could think about thyme. You could think about oregano, rosemary. Those are all options that have a good likelihood of being beneficial here. These ones are more on the antimicrobial line. They may have some pain-relieving effects as well. But these would be more of that idea varying up the constituents that I’m using to combat infection. So, that’s not only going to be done within the berberine world, but we can branch out. And we can look at other different varieties of constituent in plants that are going to have this kind of activity. And those powerful aromatics from sage or monarda, if you’re lucky enough to have monarda available, they can really do that job quite well. So, they are plants that we often turn to when we’re looking for help with dental issues. Then there’s clove, which is also, you know, famous as a toothache relieving kind of an herbal remedy. And some clove tincture works fast to dull pain, to quiet down that nerve signal. And also clove through a similar set of mechanisms is serving as an antimicrobial, right? So both acting on the nerve to relieve pain and to combat the infection, you can see why this is such a valued remedy for these kinds of problems. So clove for sure makes a great support there. Other aromatic plants with similar-ish kind of scents and flavors can be helpful. I actually have an anise, it’s like a star anise flavored tooth powder that I brush with. And I was noticing last night that while I was brushing with that, it’s pretty strong. You know, they have a pretty heavy hand with the essential oils that they mix into there. But in any case, brushing with that I was feeling some pain relief just from the anise and its aromatic constituents. So, you know, that’s related to clove in its aromaticity and that kind of flavor profile, scent profile.

Ryn (22:03):
Another option is myrrh, getting into resins now. Resins are just fantastic antimicrobials really across the entire spectrum. And myrrh, my experience working with this for dental pain is that it does taste warm. It does for sure feel like it’s combating infection. And it has somewhat of a pain-relieving quality. It’s not immense, but it’s certainly present. Maybe not as strong as clove, but it’s there for sure. So I do like to work with myrrh. The issue with myrrh, though, is that a tincture of myrrh is going to have to be very high proof alcohol, probably 95%. And so you’re going to want to be a little more careful about how much. You know, maybe only a fifth of a dropper or a quarter of a dropper instead of a full dropper. And just try to be a little more precise about where you put it, so that you’re not causing irritation to surrounding tissues.

Ryn (22:53):
And the same would go for the last thing I’ll mention today, propolis, right? So propolis is a resin that bees have collected and then done some bee magic to and powered it up a bit. So propolis is also very powerful as an antimicrobial. I haven’t experienced a ton of pain relief working with that one on dental troubles. But it is again, a good idea to vary up your antimicrobial approaches when you’re working with herbs in this way. So, that would be another one to put in the rotation for that side of the work. All right. So again, not an exhaustive list. There’s plenty of other plants that could help out. But these are some of the ones I’ve been working with or plan to over the next couple of days. I’m feeling pretty good, you know. The herbs are working. I took a little of the spilanthes right before I got started. And I’m currently still not really feeling any pain I need to do anything about, you know. In another hour or so it’ll probably be time for another squirt. But I’m feeling pretty comfortable in the moment. And so I hope that this information is helpful, and that you maybe consider getting some of these herbs on hand to keep in your home first aid kit to take care of folks around you, just in case they start to get a toothache. We’ve done that several times, you know, with visiting friends or in student groups.

Ryn (24:15):
I can remember one person in particular who was kind of in an in-between place. They were an international student. This was in the groups of students that I teach for the pharmacy schools here in town. So, we get students coming around on six week rotations. And this person was about to finish one up and fly back home to South Korea, but was in kind of a limbo where they were no longer able to get medical or dental care through the school for the remainder of this week. But they didn’t have access to their overseas insurance either. So they were really stuck and in a lot of pain, but still showed up for class. And I was like, all right, stop everything. Let’s get you some spilanthes. He squirted it in there. And about two minutes later I had kind of started teaching, but he was like hey. It doesn’t hurt anymore. And I’m like, yes, that’s because the herbs work. So, you know, it’s always nice when you can have that kind of experience. And spilanthes is trustworthy, you know? So really all these herbs I’ve mentioned today are trustworthy and worth having around in this format, so you can take them when you need them. All right, everyone. That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening. Katja and I will both be back next time with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea. And don’t forget to floss, okay? Bye


Join our newsletter for more herby goodness!

Get our newsletter delivered right to your inbox. You'll be first to hear about free mini-courses, podcast episodes, and other goodies about holistic herbalism.